Pep Guardiola takes reigning champions Manchester City to struggling Huddersfield on Sunday, with the Premier League’s bottom side facing the prospect of finding themselves on the receiving end of Kevin De Bruyne’s frustration.
Arguably City’s standout performer in their record-breaking title campaign last season, the Belgian’s season has been badly interrupted by two lengthy spells on the sidelines with knee problems.
Now fully fit, De Bruyne has cut a frustrated figure on occasion, most notably when substituted during his team’s emphatic 9-0 victory over League One Burton in the semi-final of the League Cup last week.
De Bruyne ran down the tunnel after being replaced in that game and, according to reports, watched the final exchanges from the City dressing room rather than from the bench, as club protocol dictates.
Coincidence or not, De Bruyne found himself left out of the starting line-up for City’s next game, the 3-0 victory over Wolverhampton on Monday, although the fact he was joined there by frontline players such as Sergio Aguero, Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan also spoke volumes about the club’s strength in depth.
Guardiola has talked about how De Bruyne needs to get game-time under his belt to rediscover the form that made him one of the Premier League’s star players and a potentially testing match against an in-form Wolves team seemed a perfect scenario for him.
Guardiola declined to go into specifics about De Bruyne’s reaction to being substituted against Burton, pointing out, instead, that the squad’s depth presented him with numerous problems.
Young playmaker Phil Foden, for example, might have expected more minutes given De Bruyne’s extended absences this season, but he did not even make the bench for the Wolves game and has yet to start a league game in his career.
– ‘Incredible squad’ –
“I have an incredible squad,” said Guardiola. “Gundo (Gundogan) made six or seven assists (recently) but didn’t play (in the starting line-up against Wolves).
“It is what it is. One of my favourite players, Phil, was not in the 18 but there are a lot of games. When they come in they need to play good because if they don’t another one is going to play. I’m unfair on many players. It is what it is.”
Guardiola’s handling of De Bruyne in the coming weeks will be fascinating, with his side still battling on all four fronts and looking capable of extended runs deep into the spring in all three cup competitions.
Brought on for the final half hour against Wolves, De Bruyne looked sharp and showed signs of his old form but against an exhausted side that had to play for the final 70 minutes with 10 men.
He had a hand in City’s third goal, although questions remain over how long it will take the 27-year-old to return to the consistently high levels he showed last season.
After a gruelling summer in which he helped Belgium to the World Cup semi-finals, De Bruyne was injured in August, returning briefly in October before being sidelined for a further six weeks.
One of the main conundrums facing Guardiola is which of the Silvas, David or Bernardo, might conceivably make way to accommodate De Bruyne.
Bernardo has started 20 of City’s 22 league games to date and won widespread praise for his consistency and form while David, at 33, is still trusted by Guardiola on the big stage.